Skip to main content

Virginia's Family Fishing Destinations

Virginia's Family Fishing Destinations

Wherever you live in the Commonwealth, a family-friendly lake or river is not too far away. Here are some fishing possibilities for your spouse and family this summer.

By Bruce Ingram

Where should two Baby Boomer dads go when they desire to have outdoor fun with their respective Generation X teenage boys? Well, if you and yours live in the Old Dominion, the answer is to visit a nearby lake or river. So when Terry Pleskonko of Mt. Sidney and I decided to plan an outing for us, his son Tyson, and my boy Mark, we naturally chose a body of water that was near at hand to the two of us - the James River. Indeed, the stream sometimes called "Virginia's River" is convenient to a large percentage of the state's population.

The float that Terry and I selected was the one from Arcadia to Alpine (4 miles), an excursion short in distance but long on fishing pleasure, as Class I rapids, eddies, and outside bends characterize much of the trip. All four of us caught good-size smallmouths, ranging from 10 to 16 inches. The boys also experienced the pleasure of catching rock bass, as plenty of redeyes in the 6- to 9-inch range dwell in the river.

All in all, 28 possible float trips exist on the James from where the river begins in Botetourt County downstream to Richmond. Some of those excursions are not at all family-friendly; for example, the Glasgow to Snowden excursion features the forbidding Class III-IV Balcony Falls, making this a journey for expert paddlers only.

The Arcadia float, though, offers much tamer water. The put-in is on the river right below the Route 614 Bridge in Botetourt County. A long river left outside bend begins the getaway and is followed by a series of Class I rapids. The last mile or so of the trip contains excellent bank cover in the form of overhanging trees and laydowns and a river left outside bend that harbors some nice smallies. The take-out is on river left, just above a Class I rapid and adjacent to Route 608/622. Families that live near Salem, Roanoke, and Lexington will find this float very convenient.

Fishing families living in the Charlottesville area should consider the Scottsville to Hardware River (6 miles) trip on the James. The put-in is on river left, just downstream from the Route 20 Bridge and just off Route 6. For families, an appealing aspect of the Scottsville getaway is that no rapids exist, yet the fishing for smallmouths and redbreast sunfish can be quite good. Numerous islands dot this section; another aspect that kids will find appealing is they can stop and explore these islands or enjoy a shore lunch. The take-out is on river left off Route 646.

Virginia sportsmen who dwell in the Greater Richmond area might want to consider a close-to-home James junket: Carterville to West View (5 miles). This trip is similarly lacking in rapids, as the river flows very tranquilly with only the occasional riffle. The put-in is below the Route 45 Bridge on river right.


Elaine Ingram admires a James River smallmouth held up by her son, Mark Ingram. The James features numerous family float trips from Botetourt County east to Richmond. Photo by Bruce Ingram

After you access the river, be ready for some stupendous sunfish sport. The first two miles of this float feature very shallow water with a larely pebble bottom. These traits are not conducive to memorable smallmouth fishing, but the panfish are present in considerable numbers. Redbreast sunfish especially occur with great regularity on this float, and they are often extremely aggressive. In-line spinners, ultralight crankbaits, and live bait will all produce mightily. You might consider introducing your child to fly-fishing on this section. The numerous sunfish are likely to make that experience positive. The take-out is on river left off Route 643.

Northern Virginia families have a wealth of locales to choose from, says Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Odenkirk.

"In my area, we have four department-owned public fishing lakes: Orange (124 acres), Brittle (77 acres), Burke (218 acres), and Curtis (91 acres)," he said. "Of these four, I'd take Burke or Orange as the most 'family friendly' in terms of best fishing opportunities, especially (for) those who like to fish for panfish from the bank. And I would give the nod to Orange as being the better of the two in terms of bank fishing, amenities, and other features."

However, continues Odenkirk, Burke has much in its favor, especially its largemouth bass population, which the biologist describes as being great. If you have older children who like to angle for largemouths, Burke definitely is well worth considering. Odenkirk also describes the catfish sport at Burke as being very good but the bluegill action as being only marginal. Orange offers solid sport for largemouths, bluegills, and channel cats.

"Burke and Orange are good lakes for families due to the presence of concessions, picnic facilities, expansive bank or pier fishing, and good fish communities," says Odenkirk. "Families can also choose between a suburban lake - Burke - or a rural one - Orange - to suit their needs.

Finally, another northern Virginia possibility is a mini-impoundment on the Phelps WMA in Fauquier County. This fishery offers good redear sunfish and catfish sport and average action for largemouths and bluegills, says Odenkirk.

VDGIF biologist Tom Hampton keeps tabs on fisheries in the far western reaches of the state.

"We have some very good fishing in Southwest Virginia, but many of our waters are remote and basically inhospitable to families," he says. "The best family fishing opportunities in my area are Hungry Mother Lake in Marion and Lake Whitten in Tazewell.

"Hungry Mother offers decent fishing for bass and bluegills and good fishing for walleyes, muskie, catfish, and crappie. There is a universally accessible pier, and the hiking/biking trail provides great bank access to nearly half of the lake's shoreline. There is also no end to the alternative activities that Hungry Mother State Park offers for families."

For example, Hampton lists walking and biking trails, a swimming beach, a playground, boat rentals, cabins, campsites, a restaurant (which the biologist rates highly), and a visitors' center. Hungry Mother (108 acres) also hosts special events and offers interpretative tours and children's activities. For more information on the state park, contact Hungry Mother at 276-781-7400.

Hampton also has praise for Lake Whitten. He says the lake provides great fishing for largemouth bass, bluegills, crappie, and stocked trout (a trout license is required from October 1-June 15). Cavitts Creek Park also offers playgrounds and other facilities for family entertainment. For more information about the park, call 276-988-72


One other far Western Virginia body of water that families might want to consider is Laurel Bed Lake (300 acres) in Russell County. The VDGIF wants people to take rock bass home from this impoundment, as the redeyes have become overabundant in the past. By doing so, your kids would be helping to manage the impoundment and having a grand time as well. Brook trout are a real possibility in late spring, but not so much so by the summer because of dissolved oxygen problems.

Smallmouth sport at the impoundment, which is surrounded by hemlocks and mixed hardwoods, can be excellent. The rocky shoreline attracts both smallies and goggle-eyes, and scattered grass and stumps exist as well. Inside tip: The float-and-fly lure can attract brookies, smallies, and rock bass. For more information, contact the Marion office of the VDGIF (276-783-4860).

VDGIF fisheries biologist Vic DiCenzo relates that South Central Virginia has a marvelous impoundment for families.

"My vote for a great family fishing lake in this area is Sandy River Reservoir (740 acres), just outside of Farmville," he says. "The lake has easy access to Farmville with its restaurants and places to stay and U.S. 460. The largemouth bass fishing is outstanding with numerous sub-12-inch fish, but there is also a really good opportunity for a 5-pounder in the spring.

"The sunfish population, predominantly bluegills and redears, is pretty good and families can expect good catch rates of fish up to 10 inches. The channel cat fishery is outstanding, and the best fishing seems to be from May to August when the kids are out of school. Catfish up to 15 pounds are caught each year, but the density seems to be good enough that family members can expect to catch some.

"Crappie are abundant and stunted, but for kids that should not be much of a problem. Kids need to catch fish to pass the time and shouldn't care that the average length crappie is 9 inches. There are even a few walleye swimming around but these fish would likely be an incidental catch."

DiCenzo adds that Sandy River also offers a large parking lot, porta-john facilities, decent bank fishing, a large handicapped-accessible pier, and a two-lane boat ramp.


Obviously, parents will have to ask permission to fish private ponds around the state, but the effort is well worth a phone call or a visit to a landowner, says VDGIF biologist John Kauffman.

"Private ponds provide a great opportunity for family fishing," he says. "We estimate there are about 80,000 ponds in Virginia, and they often provide the introduction to fishing for many children. Not only do they provide the catch rates that are needed to keep kids interested, they also can produce a lot of citation fish. In 2002, private ponds produced 766 citation largemouths and 109 citation bluegills. Persons interested in fishing these ponds need to remember they are private and that permission from the landowner is needed before enjoying that resource."

Consult the VDGIF Website ( to learn more about private pond management as well as department-owned lakes.

In North Central Virginia, Lake Anna (9,600 acres) is mostly known for its largemouth bass and striper sport. Guide C.C. McCotter maintains that parents and their offspring might enjoy angling for the impoundment's crappie.

"From my personal observations, I can say Anna's crappie fishery appears to be good," he says. "A three-pound crappie was brought to a marina in the fall of 2003, and we caught numerous citations last autumn. The upper lake is just full of crappie. Rocks, docks, and bridge pilings are best. The Fish Structure Enhancement Program appears to be working well in the mid-lake region."

He also points out that crappie fishing can be less complex than casting for bass and stripers. That simplicity can be very helpful in a family fishing trip. Crappie are usually caught in schools, too, so action is constant and even the shortest attention spans are captivated.

On Anna papermouth forays, McCotter likes his clients to employ a slip bobber and a minnow rig on an 8-foot rod. This getup enables parents and their children to fish at any depth without having to employ a long, cumbersome leader. If a child is capable of casting, then McCotter will have him or her cast small jigs to marked underwater cover. For guided trips on Lake Anna, contact McCotter at 540-894-5960.

In the Northeastern part of the Commonwealth, VDGIF biologist Steve Owens believes families would enjoy Germantown Lake (109 acres) in Fauquier County. The impoundment, located in C.M. Crockett Park, features good numbers of largemouth bass, bluegills, crappie, and channel catfish. The park offers a ramp, boat rentals/concessions, and a picnic area. For more information, contact the Fauquier County Parks and Rec at 540-788-4867.

Owens also recommends Motts Run Reservoir (160 acres) in Spotsylvania County. Species available include largemouths, bluegills, crappie, white perch, and channel cats. Facilities proffered by the City of Fredericksburg include a ramp, boat rentals/concessions, pier, and picnic area. Daily or season permits are required and are available from the concession. For more information, call 540-786-8989 or 372-1086.

In Southwest Virginia, VDGIF biologist John Copeland recommends Rural Retreat Lake (90 acres) in Wythe County.

"The lake has some plump, very healthy bluegills, as well as some redear sunfish for kids to fish for," he said. "We also have been stocking 10- to 12-inch channel catfish in the lake. Research has shown that stocking fewer but bigger channels produces better fishing over the long term.

"I also would encourage families to take home the lake's crappie to eat. The mean size average of them was 6 inches but that has now risen to 8-to-9 inches. Largemouth bass and muskie are in Rural Retreat, and a few years ago, an 8-year-old kid caught a 55-pound grass carp."

Copeland says that Rural Retreat offers a campground, concessions, boat rental, and a great deal of shoreline fishing access.

The Tidewater region harbors a number of impoundments that offer outstanding family fishing opportunities for panfish, specifically such lakes as Prince (777 acres), Western Branch (1,545), Cahoon (510 acres), Kilby (226 acres) and Meade (512 acres). Bluegills, redear sunfish, crappie, and yellow perch are just a few of the species available in some or all of these bodies of water. These lakes certainly receive widespread publicity in Eastern Virginia, but biologist Muhktar Farouqui mentioned that a lake that is not as well known, Lee Hall Reservoir (493 acres), deserves some acclaim, too.

Lee Hall, which is owned by the City of Newport News and is located in Newport News Park, contains bluegills, largemouths, chain pickerel, black crappie, yellow and white perch, and pumpkinseed and redear sunfish. Numerous pickerel in the 16- to 22-inch range fin the reservoir, and this mem

ber of the pike family was a favorite quarry of mine when I was a boy. Children who have graduated to using in-line spinners and hard plastic minnow plugs will likely be able to duel with a chain or two.

Good numbers of crappie running 8 to 12 inches are also available, and the white perch presence is also considerable with fish up to 10 inches possible. In addition to the angling possibilities, Newport News Park envelops some 8,000 acres - making it one of the largest municipal parks in the Eastern United States. For more information on the park and Lee Hall, contact Newport News Parks and Recreation at 757-886-7912;

Finally, if I wanted to select a family-friendly lake that was convenient to most of the anglers and their offspring in the Old Dominion, I would choose Buggs Island (48,900 acres) in South Central Virginia. I live in Southwest Virginia near Roanoke, and Buggs is about a three-hour drive from my house. Yet sportsmen dwelling in the Greater Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Suffolk area, as well as the Richmond/Petersburg area, have to spend even less time on the road in order to reach this lowland impoundment. No lake in the state produces the number of good-size crappie this one does, and bluegills are very abundant as well.

* * *

When I was a boy, I constantly pestered my dad to take me fishing. When your child makes similar requests this summer, perhaps some of the destinations detailed here will enable you and yours to enjoy quality outdoor time together.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Virginia Game & Fish

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Taking to the Skies: Helicopter Hog Hunt in Texas

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Let There Be Light … For Anglers

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Scout & Adjust: Keys to Successful Hunting on Public Land

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Tips to Improve Deer Habitat on Your Hunting Land

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Treat Your Boat Well on Dry Land for More Splash on the Water

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

How to Max Your Fishing Success on Foot

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Going to the Bank

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Advantage: Kayak

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Bass Crash Course: How to Skip a Lure

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Take a Swim - For Real

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Mega Worms

When most anglers think of a crankbait, they picture a hard lure with a plastic lip at the front that enables the bait t...

Give Me No Lip

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now